Peter Espeut | Contingent democracy
It was Edward Seaga who famously said that “Elections don’t set up like rain”, but it is clear to me that it would be political suicide for a prime minister to call any election – local government or general – in the current Jamaican political and economic environment. The reputation of the government has been sullied by its handling – or mishandling – of information in its possession about challenges facing a private firm with whom billions of private investment dollars has been lodged by unsuspecting Jamaicans.
The minister of finance claims that a report by government regulators sent to him outlining the danger was placed in his filing cabinet without first being laid on his desk, and so he never saw it. And the regulators apparently left the matter there, keeping their knowledge to themselves, without informing the investing public or further informing the minister; although there are reports that at least one highly placed politician cashed in his investments with the troubled firm before the bad news broke.
It was not (alert) government regulators or fraud investigators that broke the story about the fraud at Stocks and Securities Limited (SSL); someone hired a private investigator to do detective work, and it was the private detective that elicited the confession from the SSL employee by way of an affidavit, which was then leaked to the press. Left to the government, the country would still be in the dark about this huge financial debacle!
This fact of failed regulation (or unwillingness to regulate) is not lost on the Jamaican public – even on diehard (diehearted) Jamaica Labour Party supporters (and financiers). Confidence in the government has fallen, by how much is yet to be determined. The slip of the government is showing! Their carefully crafted public image of fiscal competence – even genius – has cracked.
This is no time to approach party donors – some of whom may be victims of financial fraud, others skittish and uncertain – for the funds needed to lubricate the country’s electioneering machinery; and so it is not difficult to predict that local government elections due this month will be deferred again.
And the Electoral Commission of Jamaica has publicly stated that it is not ready – and cannot now be ready – for a February 2023 election, even if the needed public funding is provided by way of supplementary estimates.
I repeat: it will be political suicide to call an election in the current political and economic environment. In the last general election (2020) only 37.8 per cent of registered voters turned out, and the government won power with only 21.3 per cent of registered voters. They had little popular support then, and have even less now. The turnout for local government elections has always been lower than for general elections, and should one be called this month, I would expect the trend to hold.
The likely large anti-government protest vote in the context of a low turnout would demoralise the incumbent party, and would bring their legitimacy openly into question. No: I don’t think we will have any kind of election any time soon.
But democracy demands that the long overdue local government elections be held as soon as possible; the law requires they be held every four years. Local government elections were last held in November 2016, and were due in 2020; they were postponed in 2020, in 2021, and again in 2022. Seven years have elapsed, and several parish council divisions are vacant, and jaded and non-performing parish councillors need to be replaced.
Is political expediency reason enough to postpone them again? Are we only due democracy when it is convenient for our politicians to grant us the right to choose our representatives? Isn’t this the definition of a profound conflict of interest? Why is our democracy contingent on the whim of self-interested parties?
There is virtue in having a fixed election date which removes the exercise of our democratic freedoms from those who would manipulate the system to their own advantage. Can we expect our current crop of politicians to introduce constitutional reforms to increase transparency and reduce their arbitrary power?
Is SSL a donor to the political coffers of the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP)? We may never know, because this vital information is a national secret. Revealing this kind of information – important though it may be to understanding the reticence of the political directorate, and their reluctance to act – attracts heavy penalties. I look forward to some patriotic JLP official (an oxymoron?) or disgruntled SSL employee blowing the whistle.
Maybe there will be a groundswell of public support for transparency in the source and amount of political donations. This current imbroglio is precisely why we need a system in place to make this kind of information publicly available! Maybe the FBI can find out!
A general election will be due year after next (in 2025). Will PM Holness hold local government elections in 2024 to “test the waters”, or will he choose to hold both at the same time?
And what of the promised referenda on Republican status, the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, and the Buggery Law? Will we have in 2025 a grand plebiscite with electors asked to mark five ballots?
If this financial mess is not satisfactorily sorted out by then, if no public sector or political heads roll, or if no one is brought to book for stealing as yet untotalled billions, our young democracy will face a political crisis of as yet unimagined proportions.
Looking on the bright side, this crisis could be the opportunity for real constitutional reform which could deepen our democracy, shine the light of day on political financing, and dramatically reduce political corruption. Private sector and civil society: over to you!
Peter Espeut is a sociologist and development scientist. Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org